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Review: 'Choir Boy' performances add intensity to moving story

| Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Jeff Swensen
LaTrea Rembert, Tru Verret-Fleming, Lamont Walker and Mel Holley star in The Rep's 'Choir Boy.'

There's no doubt that Tarell Alvin McCraney is a powerful and vivid playwright.

Those who saw City Theatre's productions of his earlier plays “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus: Or the Secret of Sweet” know that his words and themes can transport audiences into the worlds McCraney creates.

Nevertheless, what makes The Rep's production of McCraney's most recent play, “Choir Boy,” so remarkable is Tome Cousin's direction and choreography that lifts the play from flat page to 3-D intensity and conflict.

Delivered without intermission, the tense, one-hour-and-40-minute drama interweaves spirituals such as “Rocking in the Land” and “Motherless Child” that express the boys' inner lives. Cousin amplifies those emotions with powerful choreography rooted in African-American culture.

McCraney sets his play in the recent past at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a private boarding school for black boys, as five young men go through their senior year.

All five of the guys are members of the school's prestigious choir, which serves as a fundraising tool for the school and an opportunity for the boys to work off pent-up energies and vent rivalries, insecurities and tensions.

The focus of that tension is an incident that occurred during the previous year's graduation as the obviously talented, bright and flamboyantly gay Pharus was the spotlight soloist delivering the school song.

Headmaster Marrow's attempts to figure out the incident and punish the perpetrator are stymied by Pharus' loyalty to the school's code not to tattle on his classmates.

McCraney specifies that the action takes place “last year.” But the boys' obedience, their uniforms and the headmaster's inability to figure out what's going on would be more at home in an earlier era.

Ignore that incongruity and concentrate on some truly moving and meaningful scenes — most prominently the discussion of the meaning, legacy and value of Negro spirituals and a touching scene between Pharus and his roommate, AJ.

Tru Verret-Fleming's Pharus aptly communicates his character's intelligence, humor and singing ability. His opening-night performance was a bit too insistent. But that might mellow as the run continues.

As Pharus' adversaries Bobby and Junior, Justin Lonesome and LaTrea Rembert nail their characters. Verret-Fleming and Lamont Walker II, who plays Pharus' longtime roommate AJ, portray a natural, relaxed friendship and provided much-needed interludes of humor.

Jason Shavers brings authority and concern to Headmaster Marrow, a man ill-equipped to deal with the issues confronting him. Playing Mr. Pendleton, a former Freedom rider and teacher at Drew Prep and the play's sole white character, Jeff Howell gives intelligence, integrity and concern to his character, who is called back from retirement to supervise the choir and keep it on mission.

Scenic designer Lindsey B. Mayer creates an unusually configured but thoroughly workable setting for this tightly wound drama.

“Choir Boy,” produced by The Rep, continues through Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays in the Studio Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. Admission: $25 to $30. Details: 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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